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Eddie Palmieri: Life on the Bandstand

Eddie Palmieri
Eddie Palmieri

A roar of applause fills the legendary Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, Calif., as Eddie Palmieri sits at the piano. With a smile and a grunting four count he brings to life “El Molestoso,” an early pachanga hit from his New York City dancehall heyday in the 1960s. As the trombones vamp behind Eddy Zervigon’s flute, lead singer Herman Olivera taunts the crowd to scream and clap in clave, the 2/4, two-bar pattern that anchors Afro-Cuban rhythm. The en clave chants and claps ring through the sold-out crowd as the trombones roar like elephants. Palmieri cues the trombones with a hand wave and Conrad Herwig and Doug Beavers hook into a riff with Zervigon, the three locked in an intense interplay, until a contrasting counter melody known as moña (which means bow) kicks in from the ‘bones and refuels the flute solo, blasting it to another stratosphere. Eddie Palmieri’s La Perfecta is alive again for the first time since 1968.

With La Perfecta, cofounders Palmieri and trombonist Barry Rogers, who died in 1991, created a sound in 1961 that Eddie’s big brother, Charlie, the distinguished New York City pianist and bandleader, called “trombanga.” The band is a fiery fusion of Cuban charanga, à la Orquesta Aragon with flute as its principal melodic voice, and the trombone-blasting Puerto Rican conjuntos (groups) of Mon Rivera.

But when La Perfecta formed, the trombone-flute lineup wasn’t Palmieri’s original choice. “I wanted a conjunto with four trumpets,” says the 65-year-old pianist, backstage before his set at the Fillmore as part of the Don Julio Tequila Legends of Latin Music tour. “Economically I couldn’t put it together. I had met many of the best trumpet players during my years with Tito Rodriguez and Vicentico Valdés. Most were non-Hispanic and wouldn’t stay with you. They grabbed for the gig that paid the most. So it was an economical move meeting Barry and changing the whole concept to two trombones.”

La Perfecta isn’t back only on the bandstands, but also in the CD stores. For La Perfecta II (Concord Picante), Palmieri dusts off five oldies from version one of the band: “Tirándote Flores,” “Cuídate Compay,” “Tu Tu Ta Ta,” “Ay Qué Rico” and “El Molestoso.” The CD’s seasoned cast-trombonist Herwig, percussionist Johnny “Dandy” Rodriguez, wood flutist Zervigon and honey-toned vocalist Olivera-handle the material with the highly skilled caliber of La Perfecta’s original players.

The remaining six selections are brilliant testimonials to Palmieri’s Latin-jazz genius. From the freeform dialogue of “Apeiron,” with Cuban trap drummer Dafnis Prieto, to the straightahead “Bianco’s Waltz,” arranged by trumpeter Bryan Lynch and featuring saxophonist Yosvany Terry Cabrera, Palmieri continues to grow creatively, nourishing his ideas with young players that come into his circle.

Still, despite the CD’s artistic success, Palmieri wasn’t so sure about resurrecting his legendary band.

“This [new] album is La Perfecta blasphemy,” exclaims Palmieri. “I never would have done it except that I’ve been associated for two decades with Conrad Herwig, who’s my compay and the greatest trombonist on the planet. Barry Rogers was my best bandstand buddy and a genius at what he did. An exciting transmitter on stage, he didn’t let anything get past him.”

La Perfecta was special because of its chemistry, and Palmieri has resisted trying to re- create that chemistry. “The reason we are reinvestigating this music is because Eddie feels comfortable that the personnel in the band can cover it,” says Herwig. “Any remake of a classic group is hard. I was involved in a project with Quincy Jones and Miles Davis at the Montreux Jazz Festival where we re-created Porgy and Bess and the original Miles Davis-Gil Evans stuff. We did it but it’s hard to go back and redo a classic. If you look at Eddie’s history he hasn’t revisited any of his older stuff. He continues to create. Barry was his alter ego so it’s difficult to go back and not do justice to the original. There’s no need to do something again if you did it perfect the first time.”

Palmieri has been called the “messiah of Latin music” because of the progressive harmonies and angular melodies he comfortably laces into salsa and Latin jazz, which are an inspiration to several generations of musicians. Former teacher Bob Bianco guided Palmieri through the musical theories of Russian scientist and mathematician Joseph Schillinger and his theories of musical motion and mathematics. “All the arts use mathematics,” says Palmieri. “If Michelangelo had not used the summation series his David would have looked like Bullwinkle. You can’t be guessing. I was a terrible math student, but what I was able to comprehend from Bob Bianco is how you can give a melody a geometrical inversion forward, backward or upside down.”

Palmieri took those theories, and the deep influences of Thelonious Monk and McCoy Tyner, and turned the Latin jazz world upside down with La Perfecta.

Born in Spanish Harlem on Dec.15, 1936, Palmieri started playing classical piano at age 8, making his debut at Carnegie Hall at 11. At 13 Palmieri performed with his uncle’s band-on timbales-but by age 15 he concentrated solely on piano. Palmieri began his professional career in the early ’50s with Eddie Forrester’s Orchestra, and in the mid- to late ’50s he garnered highprofile stints with Johnny Segui, Vicentico Valdés and Tito Rodriguez. Palmieri came into his own as a bandleader with La Perfecta at the Palladium Ballroom, where he and the band were a mainstay until the club closed in 1966.

Rogers and Palmieri met at Triton’s, a social club in the Bronx, around 1960 or ’61 when flutist-bandleader Johnny Pacheco was hosting a Tuesday night Latin jam session. Palmieri walked into the club and saw Rogers playing on the bandstand. “I told him I was doing some gigs and could I call him once in a while. He said, ‘Sure,’ and that’s how we got started.”

With La Perfecta, Palmieri achieved a high level of dancehall success that made him a maverick threat to that period’s “Big Three”-Machito, Tito Rodriguez and Tito Puente. The younger Palmieri brought a fresh generational spin that helped transition Latin music from the big-band format to smaller ensembles. With La Perfecta comprised of two trombones, flute, piano, Afro-Cuban percussion and vocals, Palmieri adhered to traditional Cuban dance forms but stretched its harmonic and improvisational space.

La Perfecta began with Rogers and João Donato on trombones, but Jose Rodriguez, a Brazilian, became the group’s established second horn player with occasional contributions from Mark Weinstein, Julian Priester, Joe Orange and others later on. With George Castro on the Cuban wooden flute, Manny Oquendo on percussion and the vocals of Ismael Quintana, La Perfecta’s musicians were young, competitive and out to make a name for themselves.

“We went one-on-one with Tito Puente at the Palladium playing four sets each,” recalls Palmieri. “La Perfecta would do the first two 45-minute sets alone. Then Tito did a set. By the time we came on for our third we were coming at him. By our fourth we were ready to let him have it. We’d throw in everything including the kitchen sink. He was the greatest bandstand warrior we ever had, and we understood each other as bandstand warriors.”

The Bronx-born Rogers was an accomplished musician versed in jazz and R&B who played with Hugo Dickens, Pucho and His Latin Soul Brothers, Fania and Cesta All-Stars, Dreams and countless recording sessions. His understanding of the moñas delighted dancers and gave spark to those early La Perfecta recordings on Alegre. “I would do a riff and Barry would pick up on it immediately and change the moña,” says Palmieri. “Once you did that it generated more energy. The tension and resistance would build and reach its highest possible climax. That’s what we strived for.”

Using two trombones was Rogers’ idea, though he modeled them after the J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding collaborations. His dynamic style, coupled with his first-rate improvisational skills, made Rogers’ playing exceptional, but his contributions to Latin jazz have mostly been unsung. But thanks to trombone virtuosos and dedicated Rogers fans Herwig and Chris Washburne, his contributions are finally getting recognized.

“Eddie and I have been talking about La Perfecta for a long time,” says Herwig. “I was working on a book of Frank Rosolino solos four or five years ago and said to him it would be great to do something like this for Barry. My idea was to go back to the La Perfecta period and arrange Rogers’ solos for 10 trombones. As time went by I sorta talked [Eddie] into it. We had to rework the arrangements so a young trombonist who’s with us, Doug Beavers, a former student of mine with fabulous ears, undertook the task of transcribing the original charts. I transcribed a couple of [Barry’s] solos and arranged it.”

La Perfecta II’s “Tirándote Flores II” is a special tribute to Rogers, with his solos voiced for three trombones. With Herwig playing the original part and Reynaldo Jorge and Beavers the harmonies, the timbre is nicely balanced.

Around 1968 Rogers left Palmieri and La Perfecta to pursue his own ideas, but not before they left behind a trail of excellent albums: their teaming with Cal Tjader for El Sonido Nuevo (The New Soul Sound) (Verve); Lo Que Traigo es Sabroso (Alegre); Azucar Pa’ti and Molasses (both for Tico).

After Rogers left La Perfecta, Palmieri’s music headed in another direction. This period was marked by intense experimentation, influenced by Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. Palmieri electrified by playing Fender Rhodes, and he brought on board violinist Alfredo de la Fe, the “Jimi Hendrix of Salsa,” and Cuban trumpet great Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros, and he collaborated with drummers like Francisco Aguabella and Chino Pozo. At a time when the revolutionary group Young Lords were fighting for social change, Palmieri fueled them culturally with albums like Justicia (Justice) as well as two live albums from Sing Sing Prison with Harlem River Drive. “[Future percussion stars] Nicky Marrero came into the band with Eladio Perez and Tommy ‘Chuckie’ Lopez. I called them los diablitos [little devils],” Palmieri says. “They were young; Chuckie was only 13. I could have been reported to the Labor Department! From there my bands kept evolving and it’s become like Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. You have to go through my band to get the recognition and feeling of playing with the caliber of musicians I surround myself with.”

The Tico label’s owner, Morris Levy, bought the bankrupt Alegre, acquiring Palmieri’s contract in the process. At Tico, Palmieri had the liberty of recording whatever he wanted, but Levy took control of all publishing and recording royalties. “Morris Levy just robbed that shit!” says Palmieri. “He finally refused me some money and I split.” Thus began Palmieri’s long-standing problems with record labels.

Palmieri’s Tico contract was sold to Coco Records, and his creative juices were flowing again even if his finaces weren’t. In 1971 Coco released the popular At the University of Puerto Rico, and in 1973 Palmieri won the Grammy’s first tropical-music award with “Un Dia Bonito.” He had found a fertile new audience on the West Coast during this time, but Palmieri seemed to lose them almost as quickly due to fickle tastes and his ongoing personal problems. Palmieri battled tax problems during this time, and due to substance abuse problems he would often take money from promoters and then cancel the gigs.

By the late ’70s, work had mostly dried up again for Palmieri. His 1978 album for Epic, Lucumi, Macumba, Voodoo, “went nowhere,” in Palmieri’s words. After Epic dropped Palmieri, he floundered without a label for three years until the late Jerry Masucci brought him into the fold of Fania Records. In 1981 Fania’s subsidiary Barbaro Records released Eddie Palmieri, but the label soon folded. In 1982 Sueño was released for the German label Intuition, and it included David Sanborn as special guest. Once again the album sank without a trace.

Palmieri had to forget about jazz and return to his dancehall roots to survive. In the mid ’80s and early ’90s he whipped up some spicy salsa CDs for the Latino dance market on Musica Latina, Sony and the briefly revived Fania.

It wasn’t until 1994’s Palmas for Nonesuch that Palmieri tried Latin jazz again. “I thought that was the deal of a lifetime,” he says, “but then I read [about] turmoil at the company and the CEO that signed me is the first to go. I was ready to do a commercial saying, ‘You want to go bankrupt? You want to be in the red? Just record me.'”

In 1995 Palmieri joined Ralph Mercado’s Tropijazz and RMM labels, where he helped introduce new talent like La India to the salsa world and instrumentalists such as saxophonist David Sanchéz, bassist John Benítez, timbalist Jose Clausell and conguero Richie Flores as well as Herwig, Lynch and alto-sax wiz Donald Harrison to the Latin jazz world.

Palmieri’s Latin-jazz music career was gaining momentum again with Mercado’s labels, and he scored his biggest hit in years with 2000’s Grammy-winning collaboration with Tito Puente, Obra Maestra (Masterpiece). Last year, however, Mercado’s labels were shut down in a publishing lawsuit, and Palmieri was without a label yet again.

La Perfecta II is his first for Concord Picante-and hopefully not his, or the label’s, last. While he’s elated to be with Concord Picante, he doesn’t want to say too much and jinx the deal. “I’m still growing and have wonderful ideas for my next two CDs with Concord, but I’m trying not to hit the road too much and keep it more local. It’s very dangerous for all of us right now. The music business is hurting. Everything is hurting.”

Palmieri will travel some this year, however, when he ventures to Puetro Rico for his first foray into musical theater. In late summer and fall, Palmieri will be part of Murderous Instinct, starring singer Lucecita Benítez and produced by Manny Fox, who did Sophisticated Ladies on Broadway with Gregory Hines. Fox’s wife, Cindy, wrote the play, which features the songs of Alberto Carrion arranged, orchestrated and conducted by Michael Philip Mossman. The play goes into rehearsal in August and opens at Bellas Artes in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 28.

“I was superimposed on this play by writing three fantasies: two for Lucecita; and the other for La India-we’re not sure if she’s going to do it though. I’m actually an actor in the play named Mario. But the deal is I’d help them with their play and they’ll help me with mine,” Palmieri says of his own production, which is two or three years away from completion. “I’m calling my play Bandstand and it begins with my parents and my wife’s family arriving in the first wave of migration from Puerto Rico in 1925. From there it’s the life of our families as well as me and brother Charlie on the bandstand.”

At the Fillmore Auditorium, Palmieri and La Perfecta II pound out a sweaty 90-minute set of nonstop salsa and Latin jazz on one of the coldest nights of the year. They give it their all and the crowd wants more. But Palmieri, for once, doesn’t return to the stage for an encore, leaving the sweaty crowd wanting in its ecstatic state.

“I’m 65 and would love to keep playing, but at the intensity that I demand. I can only hope the youngsters can keep up with me,” says Palmieri. “When I get on the bandstand it’s a different deal. I don’t eat before I go on, and keep as loose as I can. You need all the power and vitality to play these charts and put out the excitement people expect every time they come to hear me play.”

Listening Pleasures

“I stay on the classical all day long. I don’t listen to anything else. I listen mainly to the pianists for the different approach, touch, form and weight distribution as well as velocity. I’m reading about that in a book called The Riddle of the Pianist’s Finger. Debussy, Chopin, Schoenberg, I love them all.”

Read Jeff Tamarkin’s interview with Eddie Palmieri about his own discography.

Originally Published